Michel Houellebecq - Miten kirjailija runtataan hellästi
He's a sexist Stalinist eugenicist. He's also a pornographer and a homophobe. So how did best-selling author Michel Houellebecq become a hero in literary France?
Anomie is a disease which disproportionately afflicts French novelists. But even by the standards of the country that gave us Proust (a bedridden neurasthenic) and Sartre (the author of Nausea), Michel Houellebecq represents a particularly acute case. Houellebecq is France's biggest literary sensation in 20 years - and his suffering is enormous.
To spend a weekend in his company is to become an unwitting participant in a sensory-deprivation experiment. External stimuli are reduced to a minimum. Physical movement is discouraged. Likewise, talking and eating, and any other activity that might detract from the primary objective - getting from Saturday morning to Sunday night with as little conscious awareness as possible. Living outside Dublin, where Houellebecq moved from Paris last year, helps: he knows almost no one in the city, and doesn't like to speak English.
When I rang the bell of his suburban town house in June, I was the first person to have done so in quite some time. Houellebecq answered the door in stockinged feet, blinked at me with his sad, brown eyes and ushered me into the living room. He curled up in a chair with a pack of Silk Cuts and a bottle of Jim Beam and hardly moved for the entire weekend. He murmured obligingly in response to my questions, but finishing a sentence often proved beyond him. Whatever energy he had seemed mostly consumed by the quiet labour of existing.
Houellebecq's wife, Marie-Pierre, came and went, refilling liquor glasses and emptying the ashtray. By late afternoon, the room was choked with smoke, and Houellebecq was no longer sober. Through a door, half hidden behind some drapes, was a balcony and directly beyond it the gray expanse of the Irish Sea. When I asked Houellebecq when the tide came in, he seemed taken aback. 'I know it moves,' he reflected, 'but we shut the curtains.'
By the time we sat down to dinner - in the living room - he was too inebriated to eat. He picked at his boiled crab and got some of it on his sleeve. His head began to nod; his eyelids drooped. But for the first time all day, he looked almost cheerful. 'I am the star of French literature,' he slurred. 'The most radical one of all.' He reached over and petted my knee. 'What's your name again?' he mumbled. 'How would you like to be in my erotic film?'
In France, Houellebecq (pronounced Well-beck) is famous for being a lot of things. Being a pitiful shut-in, however, is not one of them. To 20-somethings, he's a hero; to baby boomers, he's a menace to society. He is also considered by turns a pornographer, a Stalinist, a racist, a sexist, a nihilist, a reactionary, a eugenicist and a homophobe. About the only thing the French seem to agree on about Houellebecq is that he is the first French novelist since Balzac whose work captures the social realities of contemporary life.
It's an extraordinary claim - all the more unlikely given Houellebecq's palpable aversion to the world. But then, 'extraordinary' is the word that best sums up Houellebecq's career. A few years ago, he was an obscure poet and recovering mental patient with a single novel under his belt and a day job debugging computers at the French parliament. Then in 1998, he published Les Particules Elémentaires (The Elementary Particles). A novel overflowing with anguish and graphic descriptions of anonymous sex, it sold 300,000 copies and incited a national verbal slugfest unlike anything France had ever seen.
Debated on the front page of Le Monde and denounced by the Catholic press, the book bitterly divided the jury of the Prix Goncourt,
Houellebecq is now, at 42, a wealthy one-man multimedia franchise. He has ventured into music (he has recorded a CD of his poems and tours
It's a quixotic wager. Houellebecq's book is an original work of art - ironic, intelligent and as airtight and elegant as a geometry proof. It is also considerably bleaker than any French sex-and-death novel in recent memory. The Elementary Particles tells the story of Bruno and Michel, a pair of half-brothers who are palmed off to grandparents at a tender age by irresponsible hippie parents. Bruno grows up to become a self-loathing, sex-obsessed psychiatric patient who, though 'prepared to go to the ends of the earth' for nubile flesh 'wrapped in a miniskirt', is rarely satisfied. He abandons the one woman who loves him, when she becomes a wheelchair-bound invalid. As for Michel, he becomes a chronically depressed molecular biologist who commits suicide off the Irish coast - but not without leaving a blueprint for establishing a new species of perfectly rational human clones, the only hope for saving mankind from self-destruction.
The wretched characters, affectless prose and clinical descriptions of group sex ('Bruno and Rudi took turns penetrating Hannelore') are deeply disturbing. But the French took exception to something else: the book's militant ideology. The Elementary Particles takes pains to ensure that we don't see Bruno and Michel merely as products of bad parenting or dumb luck. Rather, they are victims of a culture awash in post-1960s values. Over the course of the novel's 272 pages, Houellebecq catalogues a daunting number of alleged scourges - the free market, New Age mysticism, legal abortion, skyrocketing divorce rates, materialism, debauchery - and lays them at the door of counterculture idealism. According to the novel's freewheeling historical logic, the 1960s begat not peace and prosperity but selfishness, misery and violence. 'In a sense,' muses Bruno in a characteristic aside, 'the serial killers of the 1990s were the spiritual children of the hippies of the 60s.' For those fortunate enough to have avoided a criminal fate, the book implies, loneliness is the reward. 'We live in a world in which there are no more links,' Houellebecq told me. 'We're just particles. It's a simple metaphor.'
His biggest gripe, however, is about what has happened to sex. The Parisian swingers' club that Bruno frequents is the apotheosis of sexual liberation gone awry. Erotic possibilities abound, but sex in the club is ultimately another free-market competition, a contest stacked in favour of the strongest and most beautiful. Bruno doesn't make the cut. He ends up checking into a mental hospital, where he plans to spend the rest of his days on a regimen of drugs that kill his libido.
It is reckless armchair sociologising like this that gets him into trouble, a fact he cavalierly dismisses. 'What I write is the truth,' he told me serenely. Many Parisians disagree. In
Initially, Houellebecq set out to change the world. His first novel, L'Extension du Domaine de la Lutte (Extension of the Battlefield), which appeared in 1994, features a physically repellent software technician whose unrealistic obsession is to find a woman who will have sex with him. Instead of losing his virginity, he ends up losing his life in a car crash. Houellebecq believed the book would force people to reconsider the premium we place on physical beauty. 'I was certain the novel would provoke social change,' he said. 'Now I think it was megalomania. When you go into a club today, you see the same behaviour as six years ago. A novel won't ever change the world.'
With The Elementary Particles, Houellebecq abandoned his fantasy of fixing the world and tried to imagine a more perfect one instead. The society of human clones at the end of the book approximates Houellebecq's idea of utopia. Freed from the shackles of sexual reproduction, Darwinian competitiveness vanishes. Gone, too, are egotism, violence and greed. As for sex, it exists purely for fun: equipped with pleasure sensors taken from the genitals of both sexes and distributed over the epidermis, each clone is a hermaphrodite destined to a life of 'new and undreamed-of erotic possibilities'. Houellebecq - who maintains an open marriage, frequents swingers' clubs and estimates that he sleeps with 25 women a year - said that he couldn't imagine anything nicer than 'having clitorises all over your body'.
Is Houellebecq, the sexual libertine, guilty of not practicing what he preaches? 'He's interesting because he's so contradictory,' said Frederic Beigbeder, a French novelist. 'He says the world is a nightmare, because we are creatures of our desires, and that individual liberty drives us to destruction and despair. He says all this, but he does the exact opposite in his life. In a sense, he is the ultimate example of what he hates.'
Houellebecq's friends don't wonder at his self-imposed exile abroad. They wonder at his being alive at all. 'He has suffered a lot,' Beigbeder said. 'I think he has come back from a place where a normal person would have committed suicide. And that explains everything.' He was born on the French
During high school, Houellebecq spent hours by himself watching trains at the station next door. 'I would get on them and go nowhere,' he recalled. 'Just get on, get off.' He was frequently depressed. Beigbeder realised just how depressed one evening not long ago, when he popped a Moody Blues ballad into his CD player and saw Houellebecq burst into tears: 'He started crying, crying. Finally he explained that at all the parties when he was 18, all the boys and girls slow-danced to this song, but he was alone and no one talked to him because he was ugly.' Then again, Beigbeder said dryly, Houellebecq 'loves pathetic - all his work is about being pathetic'.
At 18, Houellebecq was rejected for French military service because of a morphine addiction. In 1980, he graduated from college with a degree in agricultural engineering. He married, had a son and divorced. Within a few years, he was unemployed, drinking heavily and in and out of mental hospitals, where he was treated for anxiety. 'Until I met writers, the most interesting people I knew were in asylums,' he said. Around the same time, he began to publish poems. But it wasn't until he took a job as a software technician in 1991 that he found his true subject as a novelist - the everyday routine of a working stiff.
L'Extension du Domaine de la Lutte contains the first articulation of Houellebecq's grand theme: free choice for all is misery for most. 'In a perfectly liberal economic system, some will accumulate considerable fortunes; others will wallow in unemployment and misery,' explains his narrator. 'In a perfectly liberal sexual system, some will enjoy a varied and exciting erotic life; others will be reduced to masturbation and solitude.' Virtually ignored by the press, the book sold 20,000 copies thanks to word of mouth. The succès de scandale of The Elementary Particles four years later assured his literary ascendancy.
It was a remarkable coup. In a country where writers are overwhelmingly upper class and products of the grandes écoles, Houellebecq was an affront. He was a petit bourgeois from the provinces with a trade-school degree. Moreover, he was indifferent to French literature. His closest precursor was the British writer Aldous Huxley, whose Brave New World is equally obsessed with eugenics. His favourite book was The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann's philosophical novel set in an asylum. 'In the French tradition, it's completely odd to put ideas in a novel,' Houellebecq said.
In some ways, Houellebecq's outsider status has actually worked to his advantage. For decades, French literature has foundered. The stalwarts of postwar fiction, novelists like Nathalie Sarraute, Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet, are either retired or dead, and the nouveau roman - a plotless, characterless exercise in abstraction - is widely considered an unreadable snooze. 'For years, French novelists haven't dared attack the big subjects,' lamented François Nourissier, president of the Prix Goncourt. 'There was the war in
Houellebecq's novel certainly attacks a big subject. But to write, as he does, that the 1960s were a fraud - that the student riots of May 1968 were more about errant individualism than glowing idealism - is seen by the liberal establishment as tantamount to sedition. 'We're all crushed by the weight of the 60s - in cinema, music, books,' said Guillaume Durand, a French talk-show host. 'And here's Houellebecq saying the 60s were nothing. It made people hate him.'
It also made him rich and famous, although hanging out with him in
But even that perk can't be depended upon to make celebrity worth the hassle required to maintain it. In July, Houellebecq left his
He also met with a costume designer about the erotic short he is directing for Canal Plus. No one seemed to be keeping pace with the production schedule, and Houellebecq, who envisioned an all-female cast and a fairy-tale plot line that would allow for 'more shots of pleasure than of organs', still had only one actress lined up - his wife. He found a fresh prospect in the form of a lanky young publicist at Flammarion. When he complained to her about his troubles with the film, she volunteered for a part. 'But you haven't even seen the script,' he said dubiously. 'I don't care,' she replied. He dutifully took down her name and address, but even her evident enthusiasm - with its hint of sexual availability - failed to lift his spirits.
He had talked about going to Chris et Manu, a swingers' club, on Friday night, but when I called him, he was having second thoughts. He suggested I drop by his apartment in a see-through skirt instead. 'I don't really want to go out,' he said. 'I just want to have sex.' When this failed to elicit the response he was looking for, he made a feeble attempt at blackmail. 'We have reached the limit of talking,' he said. 'There are things only people who have physical relations with me get to hear.' When that, too, fell flat, he lapsed into a melancholy monologue. 'The journalist is the enemy of the groupie,' he said. 'The groupie exists just to have sex with. The journalist wants an interview, and the journalist usually wins. I'm on the side of the groupie, but I'm too passive to put up a fight.' Before I hung up, I asked him what he was going to do. 'Go to bed,' he sighed. It was .
Fortunately, Houellebecq has a few other ways of distracting himself besides sex. Writing, for example. There are always aspects of contemporary life to repudiate. He is already working on his next novel, which will be set in